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February 26, 2012

Question: Is tolerance a virtue?

 Generally speaking, tolerance is a virtue, if by tolerance we mean practising acceptance, patience, courtesy and loving-kindness. This virtue would apply whether we speak of interfaith or interpersonal relationships. We read, for example, in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, "One must guide mankind to the ocean of true understanding in a spirit of love and tolerance." (Kitab-i-Aqdas, Most Holy Book, p. 5). Tolerance does have a special, positive relevance for religion, especially as an antidote to religious fanaticism. In that case, tolerance is a virtue if one considers that tolerating religious differences is better than condemning, shunning or killing.

But upon closer examination, we realize that tolerance - and for different reasons - is one of those virtues that is not touted by all. Tolerance may amount to nothing more than a passive acceptance of the other, a sort of peaceful coexistence in which we "tolerate" but largely ignore one another. By contrast, 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), the son of Bahá'u'lláh, his successor and authorized interpreter of his teachings, observed: "When you enter a meeting of these people (Bahá'ís), you will find Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Buddhists gathered together in perfect fellowship and agreement. In their discussions, the greatest spirit of tolerance and friendship has supplanted the former hostility and hatred witnessed among them" (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 301).

To the self-righteous who believe that they occupy a privileged place of salvation, and have earned the special favour of God, avoidance of other religious is actually considered to be a virtue. Again, this attitude is precisely the inverse of Bahá'u'lláh's counsel to "Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship" (Gleanings, p. 94).

In challenging interpersonal relationships, the ideal to strive for is not just to tolerate the individual but to genuinely love her/him. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, like Christ, counselled: "Not that one should consider another as an enemy and then put up with him ... and be forbearing toward him. This is hypocrisy and not real love - Your love and kindness must be real ... not merely forbearance, for forbearance, if not of the heart, is hypocrisy" (quoted by Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, p. 81)
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen February 26, 2012
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